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When last year’s proposed constitutional amendment to allow the state to raise more money for public education by implementing its own property tax was shot down, even opponents said Hawaii’s schools needed more money and vowed to help them get it.
A year later, that doesn’t seem to be happening at the Hawaii Legislature, where leaders are now saying the lesson of 2018 was that there needs to be better transparency in current school spending practices before more money is provided.
“Education doesn’t seem to be at the top of the agenda this session, which seems to me puzzling and interesting because there was so much discussion over the ConAm,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
While the proposed constitutional amendment was ultimately invalidated before the election by the Hawaii Supreme Court for its vague wording, it stirred up intense debate over the adequacy of public school funding in Hawaii that left many people wondering how it would shape future talks.
This year, however, most education funding proposals are not faring well in the Legislature.
One casualty this session — and perhaps the most analogous to the constitutional amendment as far as raising more money — was a Senate bill to increase the general excise tax by 0.5 percent to steer additional funding to the Hawaii Department of Education and the University of Hawaii.
The idea, which has been floated before, was a long shot from the start. The bill did cross over from the Senate, but will not get a hearing in the House, Sylvia Luke, the House Finance Committee chair, decided.
“We made that determination early on in session,” Luke said, adding that “bills should be introduced for discussion purposes.”
“We have an obligation to at least make an effort to show the public that we are helping the DOE bring accountability to DOE before we tackle the tax issue,” she said. “We need to have a better understanding of how these monies are being used.”
Greater transparency for the DOE’s nearly $2 billion annual operating budget was also called for by constitutional amendment opponents, including those in the business community.
“The Legislature took that very seriously. We heard that the community also wanted that aspect of it,” House Lower and Higher Education Chair Justin Woodson said earlier this session.
That’s what sparked the decision to turn to a new budgetary process this session to give committee chairs more authority over department budgets, Woodson said.
The push for more transparency has also produced Senate Bill 856, which calls for a financial and management audit of the DOE by the state auditor every three years. The measure is set to be heard by the House Finance Committee on Friday.
Such an audit “would help the state determine exactly what kinds of costs are needed to help with our schools’ infrastructure and student needs” as well as “more accurately inform further action by the Legislature to improve our schools,” the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, which opposed the constitutional amendment, said in written testimony.
Representatives of the Chamber and Affordable Hawaii Coalition, a political action committee organized last year to oppose the constitutional amendment, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which led the two-year effort to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot last year, opposes an audit and is instead pushing for a bill to commission a study on the adequacy of education funding in Hawaii.
“Although the audit may identify inefficiencies as everyone would expect, it will not find a large enough sum to make up for the inadequate funding of our public schools,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said in written testimony.
Another education funding measure still alive this session is Sen. Stanley Chang’s measure to offer DOE teachers placed in harder-to-staff geographic areas $500 monthly vouchers to help offset the cost of rent or mortgage payments.
Last year’s constitutional amendment — whose primary backer was the HSTA — generated controversy from the start.
The proposal, significantly watered down by the time it passed out of the Legislature, asked voters whether the Legislature should be authorized to establish “a surcharge on investment real property” to support public education, without offering any parameters as to what constituted “real property” or how new funds might be spent by the DOE.
If it had withstood a court challenge and been approved by voters, lawmakers would have had the task of coming up with the details of that taxing mechanism. (Although the ballot measure had already been invalidated, final election results showed overwhelming opposition.)
“It was kind of a non-commitment commitment (by legislators) to put that on the ballot,” said Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at UH Manoa.
The HSTA argued the DOE, the country’s only statewide school district encompassing 292 schools, 179,000 students and roughly 22,000 administrative employees, is so underfunded that some public school students are deprived of a quality education.
The constitutional amendment’s opponents included the county mayors and the real estate and business communities. They said any tax surcharge on investment property would harm the average resident in Hawaii by raising rents across the board in an already unaffordable place.
The counties also didn’t want to see the state gain the ability to tax property — something only counties can do now.
“I think the residue is, people are a little gun-shy — ‘well, I guess that didn’t work out,'” Shon said. “I do think people feel that it would be better if public education were better funded, but maybe the stronger feeling is that it’s too darn expensive to live in Hawaii.”
A recent survey released by the education advocacy nonprofit HawaiiKidsCAN, conducted by Solutions Pacific and Ward Research, indicates that improving public education is a priority for residents — although it’s behind addressing homelessness and even with alleviating traffic congestion.
Out of 404 voters randomly polled statewide, 77 percent said they believed public schools should receive more funding, but it’s not clear how their responses would change if that proposed funding was through a new or raised tax.
Rosenlee said the biggest ripple effect he’s seen this year from last year’s debate is a shift in legislators’ thinking when it comes to the need for public education funding.
“Very quickly in conversations, (you) no longer have to convince (lawmakers) the schools need more funding,” he said. “The question is not, should we increase funding for public schools but what is the best way to do it?”
He added that it was encouraging to see the GET bill pass out of the Senate, even though it won’t make it through the House.
“We are surprised it got so far in the Senate. There was still a desire to fund education and we saw the Senate willing to take up the GET bill,” Rosenlee said.
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